The Next New Thing

I noticed last Thursday that the world is going to hell. You say, “The world has always been going to hell.” I say, “Yes, but now it is going straight to hell. Rapidly to hell. Immediately to hell.”  

No handbaskets need apply. Photo by Melody Bates on Unsplash.

Do not pass “Go,” and do not bother with a handbasket.

Senior citizens have long known that civilization is on the skids. The knowledge comes free with age. You have seen too much. You remember how things were. The good things you remember keep sliding down into the dustbin of entropy. Meanwhile, bad things come up out of nowhere and metastasize across the evening sky.

Wheels coming off the dustbin of entropy. Photo by Jon Toney on Unsplash.

However, God says:

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

—Isaiah 43:19 (NIV)

God is preparing Something Completely Different, and it’s on a channel our sets can’t pick up. The Great New Thing of the Future is already here, but we’re looking the wrong way. (Theologians have been known to call this “eschatological tension.”)

Bubbling up from below, not quite visible, something altogether new. Photo by Daniel Chen on Unsplash

Eternity crashes down about our ears in more ways than Chicken Little could ever count. 

  • War. Plague. Famine.
  • Inflation. Depression. Hard-heartedness.
  • Dissension. Criticism. Hurtfulness.
  • Politics.

Pick your poison.

Whenever things come crashing down, a whole new arrangement waits in the wings.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. 

—Tennyson, Idylls of the King

We waste ourselves attacking visions that diverge from our own. History shows that diversity of viewpoints is a kind of “rocket fuel” that has propelled our society to greatness. We can’t be bothered with that. The deplorable politics of others, we take for our bête noir—perhaps because we face no real existential threats.

The Bible tells us, more than it tells us any other thing, “Fear not.” Yet we continue to be  governed by fear. What if we were governed by confidence that the next new wave of things will bring the perfect, peaceable Kingdom of God that much closer to fruition? 

Road to the peaceable kingdom. Photo by Eryk on Unsplash

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Cross and Flag

My irascible sometime friend and former work supervisor, Tim, once went ballistic in my presence over the historic fact that U.S. presidents including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and in the twentieth century Woodrow Wilson on various occasions had issued public calls for “fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” 

Our flag. “US Flag” by jnn1776 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Tim—alas, now deceased—was a military man. He was quite intelligent, tolerably well-educated, and always in the grip of a steamy anger that was never far from the surface. He had been raised in a Catholic family but in adulthood described himself as “agnostic.” 

He made no quarrel with presidential calls for fasting and prayer. He understood that even in a nation that prohibits “an establishment of Religion,” a leader may give voice to the general religious impulses of the people. But he did not think a chief executive should call for the country to be humiliated.

“Cross” by dino_b is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Tim was a notable narcissist, full of pride in himself and esteeming pride as a general virtue in all cases. He considered humiliation as the one thing to be avoided above all. Therefore, to call for humiliation of the whole nation was tantamount to treason. After all—the British, the Germans, and the Japanese had tried to humiliate us and we had not let them get away with it. Why, then, do it to ourselves?

With more time and more patience, had I been wiser and deeper, I might have helped Tim understand the concept of national humiliation in a larger context. But I did not.

In his sensitivity to that issue, Tim inadvertently put his finger on a key dimension of America’s church-state relationship. If we understand our nation’s affairs to fall within the Providence of a Power who calls each of us to approach life with Christ-like humility, then it seems  proper for all of us, as a body politic, periodically to be humbled. To be reminded, that is, of our proper place in the world under the overarching care of God.

“Humiliation” in this sense may be what Lincoln had in mind when he said, in his Second Inaugural Address,

Abraham Lincoln. “twlncn63” by gvgoebel is licensed under CC PDM 1.0 

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?” 

That kind of thinking, I believe, is what Washington, Lincoln, and others meant when they called for national “humiliation.”

Past generations have mostly understood and assumed a close kinship between our lives as Christians and our lives as citizens. Alhough the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has always forbidden the government to prescribe forms of prayer and worship, nobody construed it to prevent Americans from expressing our religious affiliations and sentiments in our public lives.

Under such a general understanding, it seemed perfectly natural to Americans of the mid-twentieth century to salute our national sovereignty by displaying flags in our houses of worship and recognizing national holidays during regular worship services. But expectations and understandings are much different today.

Our pastor—no bomb-throwing activist, she—called our attention to three articles in the current online Alban Weekly dealing with churches’ sometimes uneasy relationship with Independence Day celebrations. She wanted to know what we thought about them. The leading piece, a nine-year-old reflection from Duke University’s Faith & Leadership website, titled “What to do about the 4th,” written by a retired Methodist minister named Ed Moore, mentioned some “local traditions” that he called “affronting.” These were: “an American flag draped over the Lord’s Table, the Pledge of Allegiance included in the liturgy, or the choir expecting to deliver a patriotic anthem.”

I suppose these “local traditions” must exist somewhere in Christendom, or Rev. Moore would not have called them out. But they must be exceeding rare. In all my years I have never seen any of these “affronting” cases included in the worship of any churches I have attended. Using the U.S. flag as a communion cloth or a chancel parament? Such a practice must be abhorrent both to Christians and to patriots (bearing in mind that many of us aspire to be both).

Some patriotic expression in worship space, however, has been a commonplace in most churches since the dim past. It might take the form of red/white/blue floral decorations on July Fourth (a practice Rev. Moore okays, faintly); or the display of the flag somewhere in the worship space; or the singing of a patriotic song such as “America the Beautiful” by the congregation on the Fourth, in place of a regular hymn.

The reason such practices come under the microscope of critical examination now is not that we somehow are better educated than our grandparents about the implications of the Establishment Clause. Rather, it’s because we now live in a society that is markedly less religious than theirs was. I believe we are the poorer for that. But it does not follow that those who still keep the faith must embrace a sharp divorce between that faith and our inner sense of national identity. There can be room for both.

The Christian flag.

In the church where I have been a member for the past forty years, we have never practiced extreme liturgical patriotism. Sometimes we sing a patriotic song or two on national holidays. We used to display a U.S. flag and a “Christian flag” in our sanctuary. We retired those flags a while back; I am not aware of any complaints about that. 

But should we, at some future time, choose to restore flags to our worship space, that would not show that we had sold out our Christian faith to some crypto-fascist conspiracy. It would only signal that fashions, or group preferences, had shifted slightly.

Some wise person once decreed that sleeping dogs ought to be permitted their slumber. Despite any number of learned articles that may be written, already or in the future, I doubt that most American church people feel any great tension between their devotion to Christ and their loyalty to our country.

I’ll bet my combustible friend Tim, if he were here today, would at least agree with that.

Boatman on the Tamsui

Taipei, 1968

The boatman bends to his oars. He guides his sampan with the ease of a sage, gliding by a large gate, toward a three-masted junk that looms beyond. Shadows and ripples tether him to water, yet he hangs suspended, the center point on which the misty harbor turns. 

“Look at this, Ralph.” 

My drinking-, carousing-, philosophizing-buddy peers through the shop window at the row of canvases. “I can’t believe the same guy painted all of these.”

“Me neither.” Six oils in sepia monochrome. Five show stark village streets, all sharp angles, hard lines, crisscossed phone wires; the sixth reveals a dreamscape that evokes the timeless China of peasants and poets. All six have the same name at the bottom.

“Good afternoon, you like these paintings?” A man stands at my elbow. A smiling man, a chubby Chinese with a servile aura. (Hen heqi,“very affable,” his mother might say.) He wears dress slacks and a gray short-sleeve shirt, stands before the storefront, shares our perspective on the art.

“Not bad,” I say.

“These are my paintings.” He smiles full wide. “I am Peco Yeh.” He shakes hands, gives us each a small card. On one side, Chinese characters; on the other, in English,  “Peco Yeh, Traditional Chinese Artist.”

Sidewalk commerce, typical for Chungshan North Road. I downplay the boatman in his watery realm, feign attraction to the sterile village scenes. But Peco Yeh homes in on my real interest. “This, Tamsui River,” he says.

Chungshan North Road, 1960s. Courtesy Taipei Air Station Blogspot.

“Local scenery, huh?” 

He waxes lyrical on Taiwan’s mountains and rivers. Besides his fawning attitude, typical for Chinese pitchmen, there is something else. One can’t mistake Peco’s effeminate manner. It suggests he is queer—a surprise, in broad daylight, here in Chiang Kai-shek’s Methodist/Confucian state. However—to each his own. He’s trying to sell his paintings, that’s all.

Ralph bad-mouths the artwork. I walk away twice; both times Peco Yeh shepherds me back to the storefront for “one more little look.” Eventually I make the watery scene my own for three dollars American, twenty-two less than his original price. The artist smiles, gives us a good-bye wave, bends his head, palms together, in the timeless Asian gesture.

A fictionalized account of true events.

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Larceny at Twice the Price

My only defense: It was a different time and place. The event narrated above is fictional only to the extent that I have invented bits of dialog I can’t recall, word for word, from fifty years ago.

Ralph and I were U.S. airmen stationed on Taiwan to monitor radiocommunications of the Chinese Communist Air Force, who flew operations just across the hundred-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. We had been taught Mandarin Chinese for eavesdropping purposes; it also came in handy when we mingled with the people of Taipei. 

Young men on our own in a place where most prices are negotiable, we took haggling to extremes. We prided ourselves on the discount we could wring from anyone selling anything. The sum of three dollars in those days was equivalent to about twenty-two of today’s dollars. One U.S. dollar bought forty NT (New Taiwan dollars), the local currency. You could get a nice restaurant dinner for half that or less. So Peco Yeh got more purchasing power from me than may be apparent. Still—when you consider that Peco’s asking price of twenty-five U.S. dollars would be less than two hundred today—I feel chagrin at having driven such a hard bargain, in the service of youthful pride. 

The value derived from this picture is far beyond the three dollars paid. That price, by the way, included the wood frame that the canvas still wears today. I took the whole thing to the U.S. Navy’s Headquarters Support Activity just up Chungshan Road. They crated and shipped it to my mother and father in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for fifteen dollars—five times what I had paid for the painting, but a worthwhile expense. 

The canvas graced my parents’ living room wall for decades. It came back to me when they died. Now it hangs in our house, where I pass it every day, oblivious to the quiet beauty it radiates. When I do stop to notice, I can’t believe my good fortune in having encountered Peco Yeh fifty years ago in Taipei. 

In Search of Peco Yeh

Who was Peco Yeh? It seemed he spent a lot of time on the street, promoting his art to any American who happened to walk by. His effete manner made him the butt of ridicule. “That guy’s as queer as a three-dollar bill,” one of my fellow airmen said. In 1968 “queerness” was not accepted. Homosexuality, although common and known of (even in the military), stayed under cover.

A Google search on “Peco Yeh” yields thumbnail photos of a few pictures attributed to him on various online auction sites, at modest prices. The paintings shown do not much resemble my boatman in style or substance, any more than did the stark village scenes with which it appeared in the store window. Peco, I think, dabbled in many styles.

Some sites give an unattributed, apocryphal biography of the artist:

“Peco Yeh is/was a Chinese man living in Taipei Taiwan during the 1970s. He came from Chengdu, China with the nationalists in 1947 with his mother. His mother was the mistress of the last court artist of the Qing Dynasty. When Empress Dowager Cixi was poisoned, the court artist went to Chengdu and took the mistress.”

A romantic tale. It seems farfetched. Could it be true? Yes. Stranger things have happened. 

China was in turmoil in the late 1940s. Communists under Mao Tse-tung defeated Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces under Chiang Kai-shek. In 1949, the Nationalists fled the mainland, occupied Taiwan, became its government. Wikipedia says, “The Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party), its officers and approximately 2 million troops took part in the retreat; in addition to many civilians and refugees, fleeing from the advances of the Communist People’s Liberation Army.” Most civilian escapees came from Sichuan or other southern provinces.

The thumbnail bio puts Peco Yeh on Taiwan two years before the main exodus. That’s possible; or it could be a misprint. He is said to hail from Chengdu, which happens to be the capital of Sichuan. Many civilians who fled with the Nationalist Army were members of, or related to members of, the upper crust. The mistress and child of a former imperial court artist could have been among them. So this narrative, though extravagant, may be true. Hard to tell.

I pray that Peco Yeh lived out a long life to its proper natural conclusion. And may God forgive me for appropriating his fine artwork at such a mean price. 

Mountains and Water

Whatever the merits of his other works, the one that hangs on my wall seems to me a fine example of a modern impressionistic work that embodies important elements from classical Chinese art: Careful composition, calligraphic brushwork, and the suggestive use of negative space—areas of the canvas that seem occupied by nothing at all yet contain the universe in that nothingness. The effect is of beauty, tranquillity, eternity. The masters of the Southern Song would recognize an affinity with their landscapes.

Chinese people use the term shan-shui(山水), “mountains and water,” to mean both natural scenery and the landscape painting that depicts it. They also have an old maxim, “The wise delight in the mountains; the good delight in the waters.” 

I can only hope the delight I now take in Peco Yeh’s Taiwan waterscape, purchased in 1968, suggests some upward evolution of my soul in the intervening fifty years.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Romance in Bible Times?

Barbara M. Britton

At last month’s UW-Madison Writers’ Institute, I met Barbara M. Britton, author of a growing series of Bible-based romances, published by Pelican Book Group. Astounded to learn that there even is such a thing as Biblical historical romance, I bought a copy of Providence: Hannah’s Journey, the first of the series. 

Providence opens in Jerusalem in 849 B.C. It tells the story of Hannah, daughter of the Levite priest Zebula. Hannah is cursed with congenital deformities which, though not very visible, bring her great grief. She lives in a society that interprets such things as frowns from God. Her priest father seeks a miracle cure at the hand of “the Prophet of Israel,” but the Prophet declines, saying only, “It is not her time.” 

Shamed and forlorn, an outcast from her family and community, Hannah goes on a quest to track down the wandering prophet and press her case with renewed urgency. She meets  a virile protector named Gilead, a young hero whose own uncertain parenthood is the burden he must bear in life. Hannah and Gilead are captured by the mighty military state of Aram and undergo severe trials on their way to a new encounter with the Prophet. 

This compelling story is based (loosely) on the case of Naaman, an Aramean army commander who suffered from leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease) and had his life change by an encounter with the prophet Elisha, as told in the fifth chapter of the Second Book of Kings. It’s worth reading that chapter of the Bible either before or after reading Providence, for the sake of context. 

Most of what happens in Providence is pure invention by Britton but is based on her view of the ancient Hebrew and Aramean societies. In that sense it is “Biblical” though obviously not literal. Is Barbara Britton’s depiction of that setting accurate and authentic? Who am I to say? Old Testament scholars would find a bone to pick soon enough—that’s why they’re scholars. But the story is moving and fast-paced, with a lot of heart, and with a firm foundation of faith at its core. Hannah and Gilead are strong and interesting characters, the kind of people we want to cheer for, and if this is an example of romance, it makes me want to read more.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

What’s So Good About It?

We show up for choir rehearsal fifty minutes before the Good Friday evening service, ready to do our time-hallowed chore.

Our pastor, with a smile, points out something new. In the entry hall, on exactly the corner of wall where your eye would naturally expect it: 

It is astounding. Our Strategic Planning Team has installed signs to assist first-time visitors. They give just the information that visitors have  been needing ever since the church opened its doors!

This sudden case of our old congregation Doing Something Right For a Change, and with only six months’ prior discussion, lifts a corner of my spirits, unexpectedly. Our church has been shrinking for at least thirty years; I have lost hope for its survival beyond the next crisis. But now, this new lettering stands against my creeping despair, stuck boldly on the wall, staking a claim on the Kingdom yet to come. 

When the shock of it subsides, we go ahead and rehearse our music. 

At seven o’clock the service begins. We are thirty-one souls, counting the pastor, the music director, the guest musician, the ten choir members, and two small children. The twenty-nine adults are mostly grayhairs, but there are also a few middle-aged stalwarts and even a college student home for the weekend.

Good Friday Worship

Good Friday is the most somber day in the Christian year. We’ve been remembering the death of Jesus on the cross for two thousand years. There is nothing light or hopeful in it. But we mull it over with God in worship once a year. It’s always pretty much the same.

Albrecht Dürer, Praying Hands.

Our church’s usual Good Friday evening service is a modified “Tenebrae” service. Candles will be extinguished, one by one, amid scripture readings and music. When all the light has been snuffed out, we will go our ways in silence, to wait for Resurrection morning.

This year’s Good Friday music includes five hymns for all to sing: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” “What Wondrous Love Is This?”, “Ah, Holy Jesus,” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  There are two piano solos from our music director, Robert Eversman; and oboe and English horn solos by Claire Workinger.

About the middle of the service, we regulars in the choir sing “Worthy Is the Lamb.” Accompanied expertly by Robert on piano and Claire on oboe, our anthem reaches a solemn grandeur two steps above the potential of our imperfect voices. 

Church members stand in the pulpit and read scripture—familiar words from Matthew, Luke, Isaiah, and John, telling of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake. The pitches, the tempoes, the accents and articulations of their voices are all different, but their seriousness of purpose is all the same. Terry’s old voice wavers and weaves its way through the text, suggesting more truth and light yet to break forth from ancient verses; Becky’s young voice is clear and declarative, grounded in the present, looking forward. 

When Jesus has once again been crucified and prepared for burial, we turn out the remaining lights and go home. 

Visible Saints

From my seat in the choir I have watched and listened to my friends in faith. Most are people I have known for years or decades, in holy covenant with the Lord. Two or three are more recent friends, but as a general thing I have many years’ accumulated exposure to the diverse outlooks of our members. 

Their approaches to religion—the private religion deep in one’s heart—are quite varied. Some are conventionally pious, all the way through (yes, that really is who they are). Some are imbued with a secular outlook that largely conceals the “religion” or “spirituality” living in their souls. There are many blends of the sacred and the profane. Some members may be just confused; others, awestruck observers of life. 

What strikes me tonight is their steadiness in attending to the task of worship. Liturgy is said to be “the work of the people” in worshiping God. And so it has been on this night. Each member of this tired, dwindling, cranky, much-loved church—from the freshest/tenderest to the oldest/most battle-hardened—came here to voice a shared agenda of ancient worship, right smack in the midst of all the uncertainty and mayhem of life. Just to do what we have always done, because that’s what we do  . . . because God matters to us.

Thank you, Lord, I hear myself pray—thank you for these people, my friends, who come at your call to worship even in the darkest times. 

However few in number, however poor in spirit, there is something real, authentic, and perpetual—not duplicated elsewhere in our lives—when we gather for worship.

World without end, Amen.